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Who was Grosseteste?

Home > Biography of Grosseteste

Who was Robert Grosseteste?

Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1170-1253). Born into a humble family from Stowe, Suffolk, this English theologian and philosopher went on to become a major leader in the English church of the thirteenth century. The early years of Grosseteste’s life are obscure, but it would appear that he completed the first stages of his education at a cathedral school in England, perhaps Hereford. In 1192, Gerard of Wales recommended Grosseteste to the bishop of Hereford, noting that he excelled in the liberal arts, canon law and even medicine. This seems to have guaranteed Grosseteste’s first ecclesiastical appointment as he remained part of the household of bishop William de Vere, until his death in 1198. At this point Grosseteste almost disappears entirely from the historical record, although there is evidence that he acted as judge-delegate in Hereford sometime between 1213 and 1216. There is also an early thirteenth-century charter from Paris, which names a Robert Grosseteste residing at a house in Paris; however, since this charter concerns the property claims of his children, some historians have suggested that this may be another Robert Grosseteste.

The next mention of Grosseteste is in the episcopal register of Hugh of Lincoln, when in 1225 Grosseteste was given a benefice with pastoral responsibilities in the diocese of Lincoln. In 1229, he was appointed archdeacon of Leicester and became a canon in the cathedral church of Lincoln. Three years later, Grosseteste was seriously ill. Taking this as divine warning against holding more than one benefice, he resigned all save his position of canon. During this period, Grosseteste also lectured in theology at Oxford. There has been some controversy as to when he became a master of theology, but the first documented evidence we have is his appointment to run the Fransciscan school at Oxford in 1229/30. The Franciscan chronicler, Thomas of Eccleston, wrote that Grosseteste’s teaching was of considerable benefit to the convent, and it explains his influence on Franciscan theology for the century. When Hugh of Lincoln died in 1235, the cathedral chapter elected Grosseteste as the next bishop. He was consecrated in March of that year, and remained bishop of the largest diocese in England for the next eighteen years. In October of 1253, Grosseteste died at the ripe old age of 83.

During his lifetime, Grosseteste was an avid participant in European intellectual life. His early education had given him a taste for natural philosophy. He began producing texts on the liberal arts, and mainly on astronomy and cosmology. His most famous scientific text, De luce (Concerning Light), argued that light was the basis of all matter, and his account of creation devotes a great deal of space to the the biblical text of God’s command, ‘Let there be light.’ Light also played a significant role his epistemology, as he followed the teachings of St. Augustine that the human intellect comes to know truth through illumination by divine light. Grosseteste’s interest in the natural world was further developed by his study of geometry, and he is one of the first western thinkers to argue that natural phenomenon can be described mathematically. He also played a pivotal role in the introduction of Aristotle to scholastic thought, producing commentaries on a number of Aristotle’s logical and scientific works. Later as bishop, Grosseteste translated the Nicomachean Ethics, making this important work available to the West in its entirety for the first time.

As important as science was to Grosseteste, his ultimate intellectual fascination was with theology. Before he became a professional theologian, Grosseteste produced treatises in pastoral theology. He was primarily interested in providing texts to educate the clergy in the sacrament of Confession. His most famous work from this period, the Templum Dei (the Temple of God), survives in over ninety mansucripts from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, a testament to its enduring popularity. The work contains the standard theology of confession, but is also adorned with useful tables and diagrams which summarised some of the more complex theological discussions on penance. In total, Grosseteste wrote five major works on the pastoral care throughout his long life. All reflect the most recent theological discussions, but are mediated with a desire to make these ideas useful and applicable for parish priests.

At Oxford, Grosseteste lectured on Scripture, disputed theological questions and preached university sermons—the three main duties of a scholastic theologian. Even after he became bishop of Lincoln, he retained links with theological discourse. He kept a watchful eye over the University of Oxford, as it was within his diocese, and ensured that the theology faculty was following in the footsteps of the faculty of theology at Paris. Around 1239-1241, he began to employ his knowledge of Greek (which he had acquired during his tenure at Oxford) to render a new translation of the works of the Byzantine theologian, John Damascene. This was soon followed by a sophisticated translation of the entire corpus of Ps-Dionysius the Areopagite, a set of writings that would have tremendous influence on mystical thought in the later Middle Ages. He also translated from the Greek the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, a text which Grosseteste considered to be further proof that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

During his eighteen years as bishop, Grosseteste became known as a brilliant, but highly demanding, church leader. He insisted that all his clergy be literate and receive some training in theology. His high standards for Christian practice and ministry landed him in a number of disputes with various parts of his dioceses, especially monasteries, and most notably his own cathedral chapter. When the cathedral chapter refused to allow an episcopal inspection in 1239, a long court case began which was eventually resolved in Grosseteste’s favour in 1245. During this dispute, Grosseteste produced a treatise on his conception of church leadership, now part of his letter collection, and is one of the most comprehensive discussions of ministry and authority in the medieval church. Further disputes over the activities of the archbishop of Canterbury in the 1240’s led to Grosseteste’s appearance at the papal court in 1250, residing at the time in Lyons. He lectured the pope on the major problems of the contemporary church, indicting the papacy as a principal cause for the current malaise. While Grosseteste’s practical demands were eventually met, in 1253 he once again clashed with the papal court over the appointment of an non-English speaking cleric in the Lincoln diocese. Grosseteste’s last letter is to the papal notary, outlining the theological and canonical reasons why he must resist this appointment. This letter is one of the main reasons why some sixteenth century thinkers considered Grosseteste a hero for the antipapists, and John Foxe went so far as to describe him as a martyr.

In more recent years, scholars have rejected the image of Grosseteste as a proto-protestant, and have attempted to place him within the intellectual and institutional context of the thirteenth century. His thought had a significant impact on Oxford theology, and his influence can be visibly seen in the writings of John Wyclif. Of the 120 works he penned, a great number still survive only in manuscript form, but most of his major philosophical and theological works have been recently published in modern critical editions. His life and thought provide an important insight into the intellectual development of scholasticism and medieval science, as well as the theoretical and practical aspects of church ministry.

Much of Grosseteste’s work still remains unedited, but in the last thirty years some of his major philosophical and theological works have received critical attention. His Oxford writings have been published in the British Academy’s Auctores Britannici Medii Aevi series: Hexaëmeron (1982), with a recent translation by C.F.J. Martin (1996); De cessatione legalium (1986); De decem mandatis (1987). A new sub-series in the Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis dedicated to new editions has recently begun, with Grosseteste’s Expositio super epistolam s. Pauli ad Galatas, Glossarum in s. Pauli epistolas and Tabula (Turnhout, 1995). The editorial team of J.W. Goering and F.A.C Mantello have edited many of Grosseteste’s smaller pastoral works, published in various scholarly journals, as well as the Templum Dei (Toronto, 1984). Critical editions of Grosseteste’s commentary on the Psalms, the Dicta, and his translation of and commentary on the Ps-Dionysian corpus are all underway. Some of his sermons have also been edited by J. McEvoy and S. Gieben. Grosseteste’s Epistolae were printed in the Rolls Series, vol. 25 (1861). A comprehensive survey of Grosseteste’s writings was completed by S.H. Thomson, The Writings of Robert Grosseteste (Cambridge, 1940).

For his philosophical and scientific works, see the editions of L. Baur, Die Philosophischen Werke des Robert Grosseteste, Bischofs von Lincoln (Münster, 1912), although some are in need of editorial revision. R.C. Dales edited Grosseteste’s Commentarius in VIII libros physicarum Aristotelis (Boulder, 1963), and P. Rossi rendered an edition of his Commentarius in libros analyticorum posterium Aristotelis (Florence, 1980).

The most recent biography is R.W. Southern, Robert Grosseteste: The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe (Oxford, 1986), but F. Stevenson, Robert Grosseteste Bishop of Lincoln (London, 1899) is still of some use. The collection of essays in Robert Grosseteste, Scholar and Bishop, ed. D. Callus (Oxford, 1955) remains essential reading. See also the recent studies in Robert Grosseteste: New Perspectives in his Thought and Scholarship, ed. J. McEvoy (Turnhout, 1995). Also relevant is J. McEvoy, The Philosophy of Robert Grosseteste (Oxford, 1982) and S. Marrone, William of Auvergne and Robert Grosseteste (Princeton, 1983).